The 'Orient Express' is a real train — and taking a ride is not cheap
Before the dawn of private jets and business class flights, royalty and high society members traveled through Europe onboard luxury trains.
Now anyone can do it — if they are willing and able to spend £1,700 ($2,300) for a one-night trip.
That's the starting rate to go from Florence to Paris aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a historic luxury train operated by the LVMH-owned Belmond travel brand. Other routes cost more — much more.
The prices, however, don't seem to deter rail enthusiasts. Many journeys sell every seat.
"2019 was a record year for Venice Simplon-Orient-Express that saw our revenue increase by 70% compared to those in 2015," said Gary Franklin, vice president of Belmond's trains and cruises.
When passenger journeys restarted in June, travelers again booked some routes solid.
"We are certainly seeing a revival of rail travel post-pandemic," Franklin told CNBC. "With more and more travelers discovering ... slow travel, we anticipate that this rise in demand and interest will continue.
The historic Orient Express service
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express comprises 11 sleeping cars, three restaurant cars, one bar car and two staff cars, making it the longest passenger train in Europe, said Franklin.
But it's not just an ordinary train. Each of the 17 carriages was once part of Europe's iconic Orient Express, a train service that connected Paris to Istanbul beginning in 1883. The service later expanded to cities across Europe, reaching its "heyday" between World War I and World War II, said Franklin.
Jet travel sidelined the famous rail line. Eventually the carriages fell into disrepair, and services ceased.
In the 1970s, American James Sherwood, Belmond's founder, bought several dilapidated carriages at an auction. By 1982, he had located — and restored to their former grandeur — enough original carriages to form the Venice Simplon-Orient Express that still operates today.
New routes across Europe
Because of the Covid pandemic, the VSOE, as it is known, missed its entire 2020 travel season, which runs from March to November.
Following an 18-month closure, the train relaunched in June with new routes to some of Europe's most popular cities. In addition to London, Paris and Venice, the luxury train now goes to Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, Rome and Florence.
The new Amsterdam route is particularly popular, said Franklin, adding that schedules to the city are close to selling out for 2022.
Belmond also added three new "grand suites" during the train's closure. The suites, now six in total, fit two passengers and have bedrooms, lounge areas and private bathrooms made of marble and hand-blown Italian glass. Prices start at £5,300 ($7,200) per person for short journeys.
The train's suites are popular due to growing demand for privacy and special-occasion travel, Franklin said.
Why people pay the price
The history, the mystique and the opulence all explain why the Venice Simplon-Orient Express makes many travelers' wish lists.
So is the fact, Franklin said, that the vacation starts the moment the journey begins — a concept few would associate with commercial flying, especially in today's climate of contentious air travel.
We only have 120 people on a train, where an equivalent train may have 2,000 people.Gary Franklinvice president, Belmond trains and cruises
Most trips only last one night. Others are longer, such as the popular five-night journey that retraces the historic route from Paris to Istanbul. The train travels this route once a year in August, and cabins usually sell out a year in advance, said Franklin.
Prices for the annual trip make one-night bookings seem like a steal.
Twin cabins for the run to Istanbul are £35,000 ($47,650) per journey, while grand suites sell for an eye-popping £110,000 ($150,000). All six suites are booked for the August 2022 trip.
Franklin acknowledged that trips on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express aren't cheap, but neither is restoring and maintaining the carriages.
"The food and beverage onboard the train … it isn't cheap; accessing the railway network isn't cheap," he said. "Also, we only have 120 people on a train, where an equivalent train may have 2,000 people."
He likened the trips to "a private jet on wheels" and the carriages to "art pieces."
"As you're going through the countryside in northern France, you wake up in your bed with breakfast in bed. You pull up the blinds, you've got the Swiss Alps and the Swiss lakes outside your window," he said "You're having lunch, as you go across the lagoon to Venice."
For that experience, "It's fantastic value for money," he said.